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Gnocchi on the Other Side of the River

Since the 1970s, Argentines – and their Uruguayan neighbors – have used the word ñoqui (“lump” in Italian) to describe public sector employees who only bother to show up for work at the end of the month to pick up their paychecks.

To this day, in a mocking celebration of bureaucratic laziness, many rioplatenses indulge in the custom of eating ñoquis on the 29th of each month.

If you happen to be anywhere around the Río de la Plata on a 29th – when money is low and paychecks are about to go out – you’ll see ñoquis widely advertised at restaurants.* You may also notice patrons stuffing 2 peso bills under their plates when they’re through – a ritual rumored to conjure up future financial prosperity.

On Friday, August 29, I ferried across the river to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay (an idyllic seaside town famous for its UNESCO World Heritage historic quarter). Virtually every eatery I passed was pushing gnocchi.

Los Reales, the hillside restaurant where Omar the taxista dropped me off after I asked him to take me someplace far from Colonia’s many tourist spots, was no exception.


“You’ll like this place,” the sailor turned cab driver assured me as we sped along the Rambla Costanera that borders the beach, “Every place in Colonia has tourists, but my taxista friends and I come here a lot for the asado.”


“How many taxi drivers are there in Colonia?”


“40.”


“40? 40 for real? I think there are 50,000 in Buenos Aires!”


“Well, only 26,000 people live in Colonia, so we don’t need that many.”


“And do the taxistas here have enough work?”


“We don’t. Between the remises (private cars) and the rental car companies, it’s hard to make a living. But we keep fighting. We have a different way of living than people in Buenos Aires.”


“How’s that?”


“People from Buenos Aires always tell me how good the people are here. My answer is always the same: we’re not good, we’re just fewer. Any time you get huge conglomerations of people anywhere, it brings out the worst. People lose their values. It’s true everywhere.”


“But even still,” he continued, “People in Uruguay are different. Our roots are different. We come from northern Italy, from Castille and Madrid in Spain. Argentines are mostly from the south of Italy, which explains why they’re more violent and more aggressive, even though life in Argentina is easier.”


“Easier how?”


“It’s easier to find work, to have a better standard of living. We only have 3 million people in Uruguay. Another million uruguayos live over there, in the smoke,” he said, jerking his head toward the dark cloud of Friday afternoon pollution that engulfed Buenos Aires.

He turned off the Rambla Costanera and onto a dirt road that wound past a bull fighting ring and into grass-covered hills.

“Nothing like Buenos Aires, eh?”

“Nothing like it,” I agreed, wondering if I was dreaming when Omar stopped in front of a 2-room stone cabin where a chalkboard easel outside read:

Today’s Special –

Gnocchi

Flan with Dulce de Leche

“Are the gnocchi here good?”

“I’ve never had them. But just ask them if they’re made from potato. If they are, then they’re homemade. If they’re made with flour, they could’ve bought them from the supermarket, and I wouldn’t order them.”

When I walked into Los Reales, a claw foot tub full of Styrofoam popcorn and wine bottles was the first thing that caught my eye. The dining room was empty except for two construction workers who were polishing off plates of gnocchi.

The lone server led me to a sunny table in the corner, put down a basket of potato chips and cheese cubes, handed me a laminated menu, and crooned along with Marc Anthony:

“No hay nada mas dificil que vivir sin tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.” [Nothing’s harder than living without youuuuuuuuuuuu]

“Are your gnocchi made from potatoes?” I asked him, struggling to keep a straight face.

“Yes.”

“Ok, I’ll have them.”

“With Bolognese sauce? That’s what everyone gets.”

“Perfect.”

A few minutes later, I was communing with a steaming pile of gnocchi resting under a generous helping of Bolognese (with ground beef, tomatoes, peppers and a bit of carrot). I could see the fork marks on the irregularly-shaped pasta. It had been made by hand.

Nevertheless, there was nothing extraordinary about the pasta itself, which hadn’t been salted, or the muffled seasoning in the sauce. But somehow, the two combined to satisfy. I tried to summon my inner food critic – it’s the richness of the beef, the lightness of the gnocchi, the fruitiness of the Cabernet from Carmelo that’s making everything taste so good…

Balderdash. I knew it was the birds chirping and the dogs barking, the laundry flapping in the wind across the street, the server’s Marc Anthony sing-along, the wine bottles lounging in a Styrofoam bubble bath, and the charm of a Uruguayan taxista (who, by the way, initially refused to take my money) that had come together to make the gnocchi at Los Reales the best I’d ever eaten on the 29th.

We taste with much more than our mouths, after all.

Los Dos Reales

Dr. Carlos Martinez 96 – about 200 meters from the Plaza de Toros

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Tel. 052 30694

Open: 7 days a week for lunch and dinner

*In Buenos Aires, you can find good gnocchi at Campo dei Fiori (Venezuela 1411, Montserrat, 4381-1800 and Arce 305, Las Cañitas, 4778-0550 / 4777-4216) and Abril (Arenales 900, Retiro, 4393-0684).

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